OSHA’s fiscal year 2004 enforcement numbers are in, and one of the most common compliance headaches turns out to be meeting requirements of the respiratory protection standard (1910.134). The rule dubiously cracked OSHA’s top five most frequently cited standards, with more than 4,300 violations.

Anytime an employee is required to wear a respirator — either by the employer or because of an OSHA standard — respiratory protection standard requirements come into play, according to OSHA’s Office of Health Enforcement.

Not having a written program in place was the most frequently cited provision of the respiratory rule, according to OSHA. So what’s so hard about putting a respiratory protection program in writing?

Ignorance is not bliss

Many employers simply don’t know what they are required to do. They might believe that if a hazardous environment exists, all they need to do is hand out respirators and they’ve done their job.

“In many cases, particularly with smaller employers,” says Patrick Kelly, chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s (AIHA) Respiratory Protection Committee, “the employer doesn’t understand that if employees are going to use respirators, they have to have a fully integrated program in place. This is one type of PPE where a full program is required.”

Even when an employer allows voluntary use of respirators in the workplace, the standard needs to be met. “As soon as the employer allows an employee to put on that respirator, even voluntarily, he has to ensure that the employee is using it appropriately,” says Kelly. “Once you give the go-ahead, you’ve got to comply with the standard.”

According to OSHA, compliance for voluntary respirator use is achieved by providing employees information in Appendix D of the standard, which offers basic respirator guidelines.

Too technical?

The fact that respirators are more technical than most other PPE could be another reason why 1910.134 is cited frequently. “If you don’t understand respirators, it’s very easy to actually be using the wrong equipment,” says Kelly. “There are nuances that need to be understood. You may need something for organic vapors and you’re using something that’s just for dust. You won’t be in compliance if you do that.”

Employers must wade through an alphabet soup of respirator acronyms — PAPRs, SARs, SCBAs, APRs — and learn the differences between the various types of equipment. “There is a technical barrier that you have to cross before you can properly implement the standard,” says Kelly.

Fit testing and hazard evaluation, two of the most frequently cited items in the respiratory protection standard, both require a fair amount of technical expertise. Kelly suggests companies solicit help from respiratory equipment vendors, professional societies or consultants.

Another avenue that employers can use for technical help — and to find out more about complying with 1910.134 in general — is to check with their OSHA area office. Each office has a compliance assistance specialist ready to provide information to employers looking to comply with specific standards.

Added expense

A third deterrent to complying with the respiratory protection standard could be economics. Establishing and maintaining procedures for selecting respirators, providing medical evaluations of employees required to use respirators, implementing fit-testing procedures for tight-fitting respirators, conducting hazard evaluations, regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the program — all these steps cost money.

“An employer may determine that doing a medical evaluation is not worth the cost, particularly if they have a lot of short-term employees,” says Kelly.

OSHA offers a number of resources on its Web site that employers can use to develop a program (see “Help from OSHA” sidebar). These types of resources may help employers keep the cost of implementing a program down.

Start writing

Many employers who get nabbed for not having a written respiratory protection program probably are cited for violations of other sections, OSHA’s Office of Health Enforcement surmises. Typically, OSHA says, if an employer has a written program in place, they will be complying with the other aspects of the standard as well.

SIDEBAR: Top five respiratory violations

The top five sections of 29 CFR 1910.134, Respiratory Protection, cited most often by OSHA in 2004:

1) Written respiratory protection program [(c)(1)]

2) Medical evaluation [(e)(1)]

3) Voluntary use [(c)(2)(i)]

4) Fit testing [(f)(2)]

5) Hazard evaluation [(d)(1)(iii)]

SIDEBAR: Help from OSHA:

  • Respiratory protection page — www.osha.gov/SLTC/respiratoryprotection/index.html

  • Respiratory protection eTool — www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/respiratory/index.html

  • Small-entity compliance guide for respiratory protection — www.osha.gov/Publications/secgrev-current.pdf

  • Consultation page — http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html